Salad Days

For Annie Christopher and Peter Backman of Annie's Naturals, oil and vinegar mix like a charm

by Larissa K. Vigue

Atop the crest of a hilly dirt road in North Calais, on 200 acres of land, sits a large, brick farmhouse. The 1845 building and the massive barn beside it suggest an era long gone, when farmers produced food untouched by modern-day processes. Inside thrives a contemporary twist on the old-fashioned notion of healthy, quality products. Annie's Naturals, a 15-year-old salad dressing and sauce company, is all but drowning out its competition in the booming natural foods market.

Annie get your hon': Spouses Annie Christopher and Peter Backman operate Annie's Naturals from an 1845 farmhouse in North Calais. The company's dressings and sauces are manufactured off-site.

Owned by Annie Christopher and her husband, Peter Backman, Annie's Naturals claimed 49 percent of the dollar share in the natural food dressing category in 1998, according to SPINS (Spence Information Services). Montpelier's Hunger Mountain Co-op, one of the first stores to carry Annie's, sells 300 bottles a week. Annie's Naturals is also the fastest growing "specialty" salad dressing brand in traditional supermarkets experiencing 60 percent growth from 1998 to 1999, as indicated by an AC Nielson report. What started as a local, one-woman show is now a 12-employee, nationally known company. Approximately 65 distributors sell its products to stores and restaurants in every state, as well as Canada, Japan, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

"They've taken it from the kitchen stove and made a very successful business," says Richard Agney, executive vice president of Central Vermont Economic Development Corp. In the late 1980s, Agney, then with Union Bank, approved a $50,000 loan for the company. Backman calls it a "major turning point" for the company, which has grown at least 35 percent each year. Agney saw it coming all along: "Sometimes you have a very good feeling about the people you are dealing with."

When Christopher and Backman settled in Vermont in 1983, they lived in the farmhouse, which has been in Backman's family for seven generations. Christopher, the company's product developer, started Annie's Naturals in a modest back room. As the business grew, the couple moved into a smaller white house across the street, which is also part of the estate. The four walls that originally housed the entire company now contain just Christopher's office. It's one of many in which rustic floorboards and exposed timbers frame desks filled with the accouterments of a modern business.

The accounting department alone has so outgrown its space that an old wood shed -- complete with working well -- was recently attached to the main part of the house and remodeled for office use.

Downstairs, the kitchen that once fed hard-working farmers is where Christopher perfects recipes, a process that sometimes takes as long as two years. Twenty-one dressings have made the grade. Five sauces -- three for pasta and two for barbecuing -- round out the product list. Following the recent introduction of traditional French and Thousand Island dressings, the company plans to unveil a new dressing in the fall and is hard at work on another highly secretive condiment line.

In addition to keeping a small amount of stock on hand for give-aways and employee use -- "They can take whatever they want," says Annie with a smile, "we don't count!" -- the company retains one sample from each batch produced and sends one to a lab to be tested. No production, however, is done in North Calais.

For East Coast business, White River Junction's Blanchard and Blanchard, which has it own line of dressings, manufactures the dressings and sauces three to four days a week. A similar arrangement with a manufacturer in Portland, Ore., covers West Coast orders. Ingredients are bought regionally as well, which makes shipping them to the manufacturer simpler.

Originality always has been the company's foot in the door with distributors. Shiitake & Sesame is Christopher's favorite dressing as well as the company's hottest seller. With soy-based products like Garlic Parmesan Tofu, a line of "nutriceuticals" that includes medicinal plants like echinacea, and some dressings designed to meet certain dietary needs, Annie's Naturals has always been on the cutting edge of specialty and natural foods.

Backman, who handles sales and marketing, explains: "Annie's always been the first to come out with new flavors. We had the first raspberry, the first roasted red pepper, the first tahini dressings on the market. She's tapping into a mass consciousness."

Office manager Donna Fitch agrees. "Annie is not only responsive to food trends -- she seems to have the ability to anticipate them."

Ask Christopher how she's managed that feat and she replies simply, "It's basically inspiration."

The company avoids genetically enhanced ingredients, a strategic decision, especially when it comes to distributing in Europe. Annie's Naturals is sold in every state as well as Canada, Japan, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

Given her background, that's the answer you'd expect. Long before founding Annie's Naturals, Christopher, who was born in Tennessee and grew up in Nyack, N.Y., lived the quintessential artist's existence. After graduating in the early '70s from Colorado Women's College in Denver with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, she moved to a rented loft in New York's SoHo district, where she supported herself and her art by waitressing. Beating the odds, she managed to turn her talent for painting into a bit of glory with gallery and museum showings, including the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. But she wasn't particularly happy. "It was hard working as a waitress and trying to be an artist -- it just wasn't very satisfying."

What satisfied her seemed a far cry from the imaginative life of brush and canvas; if anything, it was more closely related to waitressing. When she wasn't painting or working, Christopher was "spending most of my time grocery shopping and cooking. Just being around so many different kinds of food -- that's what I really loved." Though Christopher had grown up with a mother who was a fabulous cook of traditional American fare, she had no idea that "there was a place you went to learn how to do this" professionally.

Christopher met Backman, who was working in sales for Capital City Press in Berlin, when she waited on him at an art bar in SoHo. One of his clients was the City College of New York in Brooklyn and he mentioned to Christopher that the institution offered an associate's degree in hotel restaurant management and culinary arts. She started the two-year program in 1980, the year she and Backman married. After taking a semester off, she graduated in 1983.

Christopher loved her new-found career path, finding it more rewarding than her life as a waitress/painter -- and equally artistic. Assuming she would become a gourmet chef in an upscale establishment, she never dreamed she'd one day be creating and selling recipes.

Her foray into natural foods had an auspicious start. During Christopher's schooling, the couple summered in Vermont while Christopher ran a barbecue stand selling chicken and ribs basted in her homemade recipe. "It was just one of those crazy ideas!" she laughs. Annie's BBQ was a natural response to the chef's favorite part of her French culinary cuisine training. "I did sauces best," she offers. "I had a real knack for making them."

First located in downtown Montpelier, Annie's BBQ cooked with wood. "Since Montpelier is sort of shaped like a bowl, we'd cover the city with smoke," chuckles Backman. "The whole place smelled like a barbecue!"

After the first season, Christopher moved her shop next to the drive-in on the Barre-Montpelier Road. It was a big hit with movie patrons, but not the most practical way for Christopher to spend her time, especially after graduating from culinary school. "It was really popular, but so much hard work. It could only be open for three months out of the year, so what do you do the rest of the time?"

She answered that in two ways: by becoming pregnant with the couple's son, Spencer (now a ninth-grader), and by deciding to close the stand and bottle the sauce instead. Saturdays, Christopher, Backman, and friends would spend the day at Cherry Hill Cannery on the Barre-Montpelier Road, which rented equipment for $5 an hour. Her big break came in November 1984 when she was invited by Vermont's Department of Agriculture to be one of 40 companies at a food show in New York. That first year, Christopher sold $5,000 of barbecue sauce. "That was really the beginning. For the first five years it was just a little home business. I did some mustards (no longer on the market), and started doing some salad dressings."

Product developer Annie Christopher takes up to two years to perfect a recipe.

At that point, the natural foods market was still a novelty. Christopher's products fell into the category of "specialty" food items that found their way onto the shelves of small gourmet stores. During this time Christopher helped to found the Vermont Specialty Food Association, but, before long, Christopher and Backman found themselves looking in a new direction.

"We were drawn to the natural foods market because of our own personal buying style," Christopher explains. The company went to its first national, natural food show in 1989 -- marketing its product to the burgeoning health food market -- and has been going ever since. Backman explains that new products are timed to coincide with two major events: the Baltimore show in the fall, which covers the East Coast; and the March show in Anaheim, which covers the west. Sales are roughly equal on both coasts.

Though Annie's Naturals is no longer the regional company Christopher first envisioned it would be, she makes it clear that being a Vermont company and receiving support from the state was invaluable from day one: "I could not have started this company without that help. That was absolutely necessary." She attributes increased traffic at food shows to the Vermont name. "Distributors and people from small stores who come to the shows, they know we're a family-run business from Vermont and that has more cachet than being from L.A.," she says. "It makes an impact."

Backman, who became co-owner in 1990, puts it this way: "The state was sort of an umbrella that protected and nurtured us." This charming habit that the partners have of clarifying, and sometimes finishing, each other's sentences speaks to the larger issue of what makes the team operate well.

Fitch, who has been with the company two years, says the couple has "developed a really good working relationship with each other, based on the respect and value that they have for each other's area of expertise. There's a balance there. They can have discussions or disagreements, but they listen to each other and are flexible in how a decision is ultimately made."

Christopher quickly points out that the business became more fun when Backman came aboard. She has more time to spend with her son and at the pottery wheel, her artistic outlet now that she no longer paints. And "with Peter's background in sales, he was able to take that area and do something with it," she says. "We were able to join each other's strength into one kind of focus."

The partners stand firmly together on hot issues like the use of ingredients containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This hit home following their first food show in England last year. "It was very clear that they did not want any product from this country that contained GMOs," says Christopher. "We were really impressed and when we came home, we made every effort to address our product line that way." Personal taste augmented their decision, as Christopher explains why GMO products are out of the question: "I don't want to eat it, so I don't expect anyone else to."

That attitude is what makes Mike Houle a cheerleader for the company. It has a "reputation for quality," says the vice president of Chittenden Bank, primary lender for Annie's Naturals. "That's very good for Vermont's image."

Larissa K. Vigue is a free-lance writer living in Winooski. She plans to complete her master's degree at Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English in the summer.